Meaningful democracy means the equal participation of women and men in political and public life
In 1999, just after the war, I found myself back in my hometown, having spent months as a refugee in Macedonia. As Kosovo recovered, the UN and many international organizations were present to help Kosovars build institutions and capacities and to reconcile communities.
I started to run the youth center in my hometown, and I had the opportunity to talk one-on-one with young people while I worked there. The center provided educational and recreational activities in a healthy environment where young women and men could learn, voice their ideas, and participate actively in their community. It divided its activities into clubs. The Human Rights Club brought together Albanian, Serb, and Roma youth so we could begin to break down the walls of hatred that had boiled over during the war. We were a new generation and we had gone through difficult and different experiences during the conflict, so getting together in this way was a real challenge at first.
The Women’s Club was established to raise the awareness of reproductive health among young women. All of the center’s activities were tailored to promote human rights and gender equality, and women tended to be more active and harder working, but they were also more open to new challenges. On a daily basis, I saw first-hand the importance of civic participation and gender equality in building democratic culture and practices.
In 2008, inspired by the Institute’s mission, I started working with NDI in Pristina, where I was assigned to run the women’s parliamentary program within NDI’s legislative strengthening program. Since 1999, NDI has been working with women in Kosovo, providing them with the skills and tools necessary to participate equally in the political process. Women’s political participation is crucial throughout the democratic process, not just because women represent the voice of half the population, but also because they tend to be more responsible, careful, and sensitive towards social issues and are less prone to corruption.
Although Kosovo was in good shape on women’s political participation from a legal standpoint—with a 30-percent gender quota—the challenges facing women elected officials were enormous. Most women MPs did not enjoy the support of political parties, media, or the government. Furthermore, our society perceived women MPs as capable of dealing only with ‘soft’ issues, such as talking about gender equality, denouncing domestic violence, and celebrating International Women’s Day.
I worked with female parliamentarians on a daily basis and witnessed the lack of equal access they faced. For example, when the media wanted a press release or even just a statement on a piece of legislation, they would always find a male MP, even though female MPs were perfectly capable of speaking on the issue. I, therefore, drafted a project for a regular monthly debate called “I take the floor,” where women MPs had the opportunity to cover different topics, from women’s rights to international relations and national security issues. This project lasted for more than 4 years and served to change the image of elected women. Although not in the same format, this program is still ongoing. Because of “I take the floor,” media outlets also started to consider giving more space to women and having gender balance on their panel discussions.
One day, my supervisor, Laura Nichols, forwarded the call for applications for the Andi Parhamovich Fellowship to me. She was extremely supportive, and I still recall her saying “this is you, this is what you do, you should apply.” I was so excited and I applied because I wanted to learn how other women’s programs are being run in DC. I also wanted to build connections and identify experts that might be very useful for my project idea.
The Fellowship was a unique opportunity for me to learn and to meet women who have developed and implemented women’s programs around the globe. With the support of NDI’s Women’s Political Participation team (now called the Gender, Women, and Democracy team), the Fellowship in DC helped me to develop new professional skills, such as drafting detailed work plans to implement my project, public speaking, and communication. At the same time, it was a privilege to observe so many programs which were breaking down the barriers to political participation that women face. I also had the opportunity to study different projects that promote innovative programming for women, and to attend interesting and inspiring events.
Most of all, I was honored to meet Andi Parhamovich’s family. I felt myself connected to them, as if I had known Andi personally. The Andi Parhamovich fellowship gave me the experience of a lifetime - listening to and meeting with the honorable Secretary Albright was a dream come true. Having the opportunity to deliver the remarks at the McDonough leadership conference was another unique and unforgettable experience. Working with the inspiring team at NDI and seeing their daily energy and dedication to strengthen the women’s political participation around the world elevated my spirit. My mentor’s tremendous support while finalizing my project helped me understand how to better structure and present the future women-focused programs I would later implement back in Kosovo.
After the Fellowship, which gave me confidence in strategic planning and more credibility in the eyes of the women members of parliament, I introduced my project to the Women’s Caucus in Kosovo and began working with them on its implementation. The project brought together women from the local and central level to identify, discuss, and lobby for an issue important to their community.
In Vushtrri municipality, for example, after several meetings with stakeholders, women councilors identified as a priority issue the “Preservation and Care of the Health of Pupils in the Schools.” These councilors discussed this issue individually with citizens, doctors, teachers, pupils, and parents, and addressed it at the local government level. In addition, through public round table discussion, they managed to gain the support of the mayor and local colleagues. At the same time, to ensure greater public and media support, the women’s caucus invited women councilors to present their findings at around table organized at the central level. Women MPs also used their parliamentary question period to elaborate the project of Vushtrri women councilors and to justify the importance of the “Preservation and Care of the Health of Pupils in the Schools” in the Vushtrri Municipality, and Kosovo overall.
This project has been approved and funded by municipal budget as a pilot project and was implemented by a consortium of the local doctors, while the women councilors have been monitoring the implementation. The health check-ups started in the most rural areas and marked a significant importance for Vushtrri community. This important, low-cost project has inspired other municipalities as well.
The project further created a network of elected women at both levels to increase women’s participation in the decision-making process and to strengthen their ability to effect change. Overall it contributed to at least four fundamental areas of a democratic society: increasing women’s leadership, strengthening cross-level collaboration, increasing interethnic cooperation, and offering an opportunity for a better public policy from the grassroots level.
In addition to building support for and alliances among women in the local and central levels, the project introduced Gender Responsive Budgeting for the first time to this targeted group. Through a two-day workshop, the group learned about the budget process in Kosovo (using a specific topic as a lens – health, education, or economy). They also learned how to draft a budget, create timelines, engage with key players etc. The workshop continued with the Gender Responsive Budgeting as a tool necessary to ensure gender equality.
As a result of the assistance of NDI, the main strategic partner, the Women’s Caucus members started to tackle greater issues in the media and through roundtable discussions. Throughout the first three terms, the Women’s Caucus, along with CSOs, strengthened both labor law and election law and managed to preserve the gender quota in the constitution. It also successfully lobbied for the appointment of women ambassadors. As such, the Caucus developed allies and a “brand” that was closely watched and welcomed by women parliamentarians in the region and other emerging democracies.
During the last legislative term, the Women’s Caucus’s impact was more difficult due to the political circumstances in the country, a crisis defined by radical actions of the opposition party, including throwing of tear gas inside the Assembly chamber. Ongoing clashes over sensitive political issues caused polarization among political parties and an inability to build consensus over matters of national interest, such as the agreement on border demarcation, which would open the way for visa liberalization. Consequently, the Women’s Caucus that facilitated cross-party and interethnic cooperation became dysfunctional for a time.
Now, five years later, I’m using my experience and skills gained during the fellowship to support the Assembly to promote parliamentary transparency, but I am always trying to ensure gender equality is an important component throughout the programs.